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The Novel as an Absence: Lukács and the Event of Postmodern Fiction

Author(s): Timothy Bewes


Source: NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Fall, 2004), pp. 5-20
Published by: Duke University Press
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TheNovelas an Absence:Lukâcsand the
EventofPostmodern Fiction
TIMOTHYBEWES

This essay is about the formal - that is to say, the nonrepresentational,


nonnarrative - elementsofso-calledpostmodern fiction. Whatinterests meabout
thoseelementsis theextenttowhichtheysignalthestatusofthetextas irreduci-
blyan event,ratherthan,say,therepresentation or imagination ofan event.I shall
argue thata refocus of attention on the materiality of the textis necessaryin or-
derto understand theethicalsubstanceof"postmodern" literature;to avoid the
that
prevalentassumption post-1945 fiction involves a retreat from questionsof
"ethics"perse,an assumptionthatdependson- and reiterates - theidea of an
incommensurability betweenethicaland aestheticconcerns.In facttheopposite
is true.Contemporary British and Americanfiction is overwhelmingly concerned
withthequestionofitsown possibility, in a contextin whichit has become,or
seems to have become,"impossible."Furthermore, its ethicalsignificance is
foundprecisely in thisapparently "formal"or"aesthetic" concern, ratherthanin,
say,theexpressedopinionsofitscharacters orauthors.
Thesepropositions arenotnew,buttheydon'tenjoygeneralconsensuseither,
particularly in thecriticaldiscoursearoundpostmodernity. Approachesto post-
modernismcan be dividedintotwo: thosewhichbelieve thepostmodernan-
nouncestheendofthepossibility oftheevent,and thosewhichmaintainthatthe
is
postmodern precisely the occasion of theevent.Thus,the propositionsput
forward above - that contemporary literature is engaged primarilywiththe
question of the possibility of the literary itself, thatthisis an ethicalas much
and
an
as aesthetic issue- are at odds with the claimputforward byFredricJameson
thatpostmodern cultural forms represent "the cultural logic latecapitalism."1
of
My argument alsois at odds with Charles Newman's statement thatcontempo-
raryAmericanliterature presents "the flattest possible characters in theflattest
possiblelandscaperendered in the flattest possiblediction," index,he says,of
the
"a mentality thatrefusesto attribute - much less contest - value" (1); withDavid
Harvey'suse oftermssuchas "plunder," "amnesia" and "spectacle"to describe
therelationofpostmodern aesthetics to history (54,55); and withPeterBrooker's
characterization of postmoderncultural forms as ideologicallydetermined
"symptom[s]," ratherthanas formsof social "analysis"(144). If my argument
has a positiverelationto actuallyexisting theories ofthepostmodern, itis to the
workof Jean-François in
Lyotard, particular to his 1982 text "Answeringthe
Question:WhatIs Postmodernism?" Lyotard'spostmodernism is a dynamic,
creativemode, ratherthan a "culturallogic," or a situationof historical
determination - bothofwhichseemtolimitouroptionsto realistrepresentation,
on one hand, and its impossibilityon the other.For Lyotard,rather,the

1 See
Jameson,Postmodernism.

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6 NOVEL I FALL 2004

postmodern artistor writer"is workingwithoutrulesin orderto formulate the


rulesof whatwillhavebeendone.Hence the factthatworkand texthave the
charactersof an event" (81). The periodizinghypothesesof Jamesonand
Harvey- forall theirhistorical incisiveness,
methodological clarityand political
resonance- have had the effectof closingdown discussionof contemporary
literature,
contributing toa senseofpolitical,
artisticand subjectiveimpotence by
focusingon the tragic,
impossible relation
of postmodernity torepresentation.
Not onlythat,butthemodeloftemporality theyinhabitis also culturally
and
historically
parochial. In 1982 Jamesongave a talkat theWhitney Museum, the
published text of which has since become famous under the title
"Postmodernismand Consumer Society." "In a world in which stylistic
innovationis no longerpossible,"he writes,

all thatis leftis to imitatedead styles,to speakthroughthemasksand withthe


voicesofthestylesin theimaginary museum.But thismeansthatcontemporary or
art
postmodernist goingis to be aboutart in
itself a new kindofway; even more,it
meansthatoneofitsessentialmessageswillinvolvethenecessary failureofartand
theaesthetic, thefailureofthenew,theimprisonment in thepast.(115-16)

Jameson'stalkis one ofthefoundingtextsofpostmodern literarystudiesin the


U.S. PerryAndersondescribesit,correctly, as "a prodigiousinauguralgesture
thatthathas commandedthefieldeversince"(54). In Jameson'swork,he con-
tinues,"postmodernity becomestheculturalsignalofa new stagein thehistory
oftheregnantmodeofproduction" (55). Butpreciselythosequalitiesthatmake
Jameson's narrative so compelling meanthatitswiderrepercussions
also have
been largelyregressive.In its strongsense ofbeingoverwhelmedby cultural
exhaustion,Jameson'sstatementreproducesa certainmodel of historical
linearity- thesamemodelthatappearsin Conrad'sHeartofDarkness, and which
has been so forcefully criticizedforitsimperialism by Chinua Achebe. By con-
not is not
trast, only postmodernity primarily a historical for
period, Lyotard;
postmodernity also announcestheend of"history" as an explanatory paradigm
foranything - and thatis precisely thecondition forthepossibility oftheevent.
In thisessayI willoffer a readingoftwoexemplary "postmodern" texts- Paul
Auster'sMr. Vertigo and DennisCooper'sPeriod.Austerand Coopermightbe
said to occupy the ethicalextremesof postmodernfiction:the respectable
"humanist"and theaesthetic"nihilist"respectively, althoughthisis an opposi-
tionI hope to leave in tattersat theend ofthisessay.Austerwritesapparently
universalizing "metaphysical" texts, in which a surrogate writer-
figure - sometimesnamedAuster,or Quinn- is alwayspresentin some form,
althoughtherelationof theseauthorcharacters to the mainbody of Auster's
textshas becomeprogressively moreangular.DennisCooper writesstoriesin
whichearnestadolescentssearchforthepossibilityof meaningand beautyin
serialkillingand disembodiment. Period,thenovelI willdeal withhere,was de-
scribedin CityPagesas "a literary snufffilmscriptedby Borges"(thequotation
appearsamong several pages ofreview excerptsin thefront oftheAmericanpa-
perback). The "scriptedby Borges"element, course, crucialto Cooper's
of is

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TIMOTHY BEWES I THE EVENT OF POSTMODERN FICTION 7

literaryrespectability, such as it is. His narratives, likeAuster's,oftenrevolve


arounda marginalcharacter whowrites,and a texthe is writing orhas written.
As novels,then,thesetextsare also explicitly concernedwiththenovelform
and itspossibility. The argument ofthisessayis concernedprincipally withthe
way thisaspect of the texts subverts readings that depend too heavilyon the
kindsofgeneralized,periodizingaccountsofthepostmodern describedabove.
Whatreadingsofcontemporary literaryfictionall toooftenlackis anytheoretical
discussionofthenovelformas such;theusual presupposition is thatpostmod-
ernfiction in
reproduces "literary" form the same aesthetic principlesfoundin,
say,postmodern architecture, or
poetry,film, painting.Spatiallydefinedtropes
such as intertextuality, irony,double-coding(a text'ssimultaneousorientation
towardsa "sophisticated" and a "popular"audience),self-referentiality, metafic-
are
tion, imposed on the literary text,with the result that postmodern is
fiction
read largelyin termsofbanality,depthlessness, cynicism, alienation,nihilism,
-
political defeat,the totalityof commodificationin short,as a formthat
incarnatesfailure,endemicimpossibility. In my reading,on the contrary, the
postmodern novel will turn out to be about belief rather than skepticism, imme-
diacyratherthanalienation,sensuousnessratherthanintellectualism, integrity
ratherthanisolation,ethicsratherthancynicism, honestyand sincerity rather
thanirony.
It mightseem perverseto turnto thefigureofGeorgLukâcsforsome fresh
thinking on thematterofthepostmodern. Nevertheless, I wantto proposethat
forall itsown considerable blind spots,historical limitations and philosophical
abstraction, Lukacs'sTheTheory of theNovel offers an account ofthenovelform
whichis indispensable forourunderstanding of what takes place in postmodern
fiction.Lukacs's earlyworkintroduces possibility postmodernfiction
the that
has thecapacityto returnus to a worldin whicheventsare stillpossible,and
thatthepostmodernnovelmighteven be preciselytheplace wherethe event
takesplace.The importance ofTheTheory oftheNovelin thisrespect,lies notin
itssolutionto whatLukâcscalls "theantinomiesofmodernity" - thebourgeois
-
novel but in its articulation of the centralproblematicof the novel as such.
Lukacs'sdefinition ofthenovelas an inherently broken,disruptedform,antici-
pates in significant ways Lyotard'sdefinition of thepostmodernas a mode of
presentation in thesituationofitsimpossibility. In otherwords,theproblematic
ofthenovel- thetaskofmakinga presentation in a situationwherepresentation
has becomeimpossible - is exactlythatwhichforLyotardanimatespostmodern
artisticformsin general.
Lukâcstheorizesthenovelformin a seriesofstriking, enigmatic formulations,
themostfamousofwhicharethat"thenovelis theformoftheepochofabsolute
sinfulness,"that "the novel formis ... an expressionof ... transcendental
homelessness,"and that "the novel is the epic of a world that has been
abandonedby God" (152,41, 88). All threecould be summedup by Lyotard's
phraseto describethepostmodern: "incredulity towardmetanarratives." I will
concentrate on the firstof Lukacs's formulations - "absolutesinfulness" - but
what I say about it will be more or less transferableto "transcendental
homelessness" and totheidea ofthe"worldabandonedbyGod."

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8 NOVEL I FALL 2004

Lukâcswas writingTheTheory oftheNoveljustbeforetheoutbreakoftheFirst


WorldWar,and theterm''absolutesinfulness" is so resonantbecauseitis one of
thefirstmomentssinceHegel thatthequestionofthepossibility or impossibility
ofliterary is an
representationgiven explicitly ethicalratherthan merelytechni-
cal dimension.PossibilityforLukâcs, as forHegel, has nothingto do with
technicalability;in a worldof "absolutesinfulness" - thetermLukâcs would
- theformsofpresentation
lateruse is "reification" availabletous arecompletely
implicatedin the horror.The contrastwhichLukâcs draws is withthe pre-
modernworld,exemplified primarilybytheepic.On thefirst page ofTheTheory
the
of Novel, Lukâcs evokes what has been lostin the worldof the novelin one of
themoststriking, sensuouslyarresting of
openings any work ofliterary
theory:

Happyare thoseages whenthestarryskyis themap ofall possiblepaths- ages


whosepathsare illuminatedby thelightofthestars.Everything in such ages is
newand yetfamiliar, full ofadventure and yet theirown. The world is wideand
yet it is likea home, the
for fire thatburns in thesoul is ofthesame essential nature
as thestars;theworldand theself,thelightand thefire,are sharplydistinct, yet
theyneverbecomepermanent strangersto one another, forfireis thesoul ofall
lightand allfireclothesitselfin light.(29)

The momentevokedby Lukâcshereshouldbe read notas an actuallyexisting


historicalsituationwhichthepostmodernnovel can help us retrieve, but as a
speculativecategory which hovers over Lukâcs's despairingdiagnosis hisown
of
present.Certainly it is a "premodern" moment in Lukâcs, characterizedby
the
wholeness, unity subject object; amongitsimplications
of and and is thepos-
at
sibility, least, that art or literaturemight have the same status as the eventsit
narrates.
Something happens when the work is read or heard or seen - thatthing
beingnotseparatefromthework,something tobe understoodor learntfromit,
orappliedoutsideit,buttheworkitself. The eventis a momentofunitybetween
sensibleand intelligible, whentheworkceasesto be- or has notyetbecome- a
"workofart"as such.ForLukâcs,thisconditionis inimicalto theworldofthe
novel,whereinteriormotivations, anxietiesand justifications providethesub-
stanceofthework,whichis thereby enmeshedin an economyof loss,longing,
and aestheticcompensation - thatis to say,art.In theworldofthenovel,arthas
beenconsignedto a sphereoutsideeverydaylife,upon whichit is nevertheless
requiredto commentperpetuallyto justifyitsexistence.Aestheticsand ethics,
thesensibleand theintelligible, are splitapartoncetheworkofliterature is or-
ganized around the of
categories bourgeoissubjectivity, as in thenovel.
ThusLukâcs'sphrase"a worldofabsolutesinfulness" announcesa situation
in whichpresentation as suchhas becomeimpossible.Withtheuniversalization
ofcorruption, literature becomesaboutthequestforabsolution, butharnessedto
its perpetualimpossibility.In the world of the novel, writesLukâcs, "the
extensivetotality oflifeis no longerdirectly given,"by whichhe meansthatthe
totalityis no longer presentable,or conceivablein sensuous terms."The
immanenceof meaningin lifehas becomea problem"(56). The resultis that
literature
becomesorganizedaroundinterior abstractions- criminality, madness,

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TIMOTHY BEWES I THE EVENT OF POSTMODERN FICTION 9

sincerity,law, the individual, hope, anticipation,disappointment- all


forLukâcs,ofthedisappearance
manifestations, ofthetotality
(61),rather
thanby
itssensuouspresentability.

Paul AusterandMr.Vertigo

The imageoftheworldas one of "absolutesinfulness" recursthroughout Paul


Auster'swriting.The epigraphto his 1992novelLeviathan is a quotationfrom
Emerson'sessay "Politics":"EveryactualStateis corrupt."2 "Actual,"one pre-
is
sumes, opposed here to or
virtual, invented, or fictional.
The stateofactuality
is
itself corrupt;and for it
Auster, seems, such a situationhas immense repercus-
sionsforthequestionofthepossibility ofliterary representation.In CityofGlass,
•thefirstvolume of his New YorkTrilogy, a writernamed Quinn- the firstof
Auster'ssurrogateauthorfigures - has givenup his attemptsat literature, and
now writesonlydetectivefiction, a commercialratherthanliteraryenterprise.
Quinnpreventshimselffromfeelingpersonally implicatedin thestuff he writes
a
byusing pseudonym, "William Wilson,"a character who serves, says,"as a
he
kind of ventriloquist" (6). Thus the novel as such- Lukâcs's bourgeoisrealist
-
novel is put into as
suspension something impossible, at least in thehandsof
In
thiswriter. CityofGlass thenovel to
becomes, paraphrase a recent essayby
Hélène Cixous,"one of its own characters."3 And thisis truein almostall of
Auster'sfiction.The strategy ofputtingthenovelin suspension,orbringing the
impossiblenovel intothe narrativeas an absentpresence within thetext,is the
meansAusterdevelopsin orderto be able to produce,precisely,a novel- the
novelwe are reading;and he does it againand again.The narrator ofTimbuktu
(1999) is a pet dog whose name is Mr. Bones. Mr. Bones's owneris a failed,
homeless writerby the name of Willy Christmas,who has seventy-four
notebooksstoredin a lockupin Baltimore,comprisingan "epic-in-progress"

2 Thesentence is followedin Emerson's textbyanother: "Goodmenmustnotobeythelawstoo


well."Thelawsatissueinthecontext ofAuster'sepigraphareofcoursethoseofliterature and
thenovel(252).
3 To buildon Cixous's one mightsaythatifthebookhas indeedbecome"oneofits
argument,
owncharacters," thentheinverseis alsotrue.Whenthedistinction betweeninsideandoutside
is abolished,thecharacters ofa workare placed alongsidethebook,outsidethetext.Their
"virtuality"is made continuous withthe"actuality" ofthebook as event.Thatpossibility is
gesturedtowardsat theendofCityofGlass,where,following thecollapseoftheStillman case,
Quinnfindshimself inStillman's apartment writingin therednotebook - writing, itturnsout,
and drawingnearto finishing theverytextwe arereading."Quinnno longerhad anyinterest
in himself,"we read."He wroteaboutthestars,theearth,hishopesformankind.He feltthat
hiswordshad beenseveredfromhim,thatnowtheywerea partoftheworldat large,as real
Theyno longerhad anything
and specificas a stone,or a lake,or a flower. to do withhim....
Nothingmattered nowbutthebeautyofall this.He wantedto go on writing aboutit,and it
painedhimtoknowthatthiswouldnotbe possible"(forthepurely"technical" reasonthatthe
pagesin thenotebookareabouttorunout)(156).In TheSpaceofLiterature Blanchotexpresses
similarideas abouttheeventofthework:"thewriterneverreads his work.It is, forhim,
a secret.He cannotlingerin itspresence.Itis a secretbecausehe is separatedfromit.
illegible,
However,hisinability toreadtheworkis nota purelynegativephenomenon. Itis,rather,
the
writer'sonlyrealrelation towhatwe callthework"(23).

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10 NOVEL I FALL 2004

entitledVagabond Days,a book whichwill neverbe finished.Austeris himself


also presentin Timbuktu,as Willy'scollegeroommate who oncepromisedto find
hima publisher, and who wenton to writea numberof"so-so"books,although
Mr.Bonesgarbleshis namein reporting thisdetail:"Anster,
Omster,something
likethat"(65),and theapproximation remainsuncorrected.
Auster'snovels always containwriters,and are almostalways about the
contrastbetween writingand anotherart formwhich is able to achieve
something - somedegreeofimmediacyofpresentation - thatwritingcannot.In
his recentnovel,TheBookofIllusions, as in so muchcontemporary fiction,the
formwhichis subjectto writerly envy is cinema.The work ofthesilent filmera,
reflects
thenarrator David Zimmer,is "as freshand invigorating as it had been
whenit was firstshown,"sincethepeople who workedon it "understoodthe
languagetheywerespeaking.Theyhad inventeda syntaxoftheeye,a grammar
of pure kinesis,and ... none of it could possiblygrow old. It was thought
translatedinto action,humanwill expressingitselfthroughthe human body,and
therefore itwas forall time"(15,emphasisadded). In TheMusicofChancetheen-
viedformis music.In Timbuktu itis notan artformas such,butthesensoryper-
ception of the canine narrator which represents theantithesisto thenovelform.
In an amusingepisode,Mr. Bones recallsone of Willy'snever-to-be-realized
projects,ofcomposingwhathe called a "Symphony ofSmells"in honorof his
beloved,incorruptible dog. Willywants to giveMr. Bones theopportunity ofan
aestheticexperiencein a sensorylanguagethathe can appreciate,and so for
threeor fourmonths,armedwitha garbagebag fullofobjectsofpossibleolfac-
toryinterest, he researches certainaestheticquestionswhichare utterly Kantian:
"Was it perhapspushingthingstoo far,Willyasked one evening,to include
femalescentsin the orchestration of the symphonies?Wouldn'tthosesmells
inducelustin thedog who inhaledthem,and wouldn'tthatunderminetheir
aestheticaspirations, turning thepieceintosomething pornographic?" (41).What
Willy fails to understand, however - and what Mr. Bones longs to tell him,if
only he could talk- is that"for a dog ... the whole world is a symphonyof
smells.Everyhour,everyminute,everysecondof his wakinglifeis at once a
physicaland a spiritualexperience. Thereis no difference betweentheinnerand
theouter,nothing toseparatethehighfromthelow" (42-44).
In Mr. Vertigoit is vaudeville performance - specifically,the art of
lévitation- which offsetsthe novel form.The narrativecenterson and is re-
countedby WaltRawley,an orphanedboy who has been schooledin lévitation
by his mentor, MasterYehudi,and thetwo ofthemtakethelévitationact suc-
cessfullyaround the countryuntilmysteriously, on reachingpuberty,Walt
beginstobe plaguedby suchsevereheadachesaftereachperformance thathe is
forcedintoearlyretirement. Thenovelopensin 1927,"theyearofBabe Ruthand
Charles Lindbergh,"Walt reminds us, and "the precise year," he goes
on- writingthebook we are readingmanyyearslater- "whennightbegan to
fallon theworldforever"(3).4It is onlylaterin thebook thatwe learnthatthe

4 In his
posthumously published ofValues,CharlesLindbergh
Autobiography madethefollowing
muchquotedremark, evoking - thestateofinnocence
- or fabulating in whichhe toolearned
tofly:'The lifeofan aviatorseemedtome ideal.Itinvolvedskill.Itcommandedadventure. It

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TIMOTHY BEWES I THE EVENT OF POSTMODERN FICTION 11

momentwhennight"fallson theworld"is a momentof"absolutesinfulness," in


Lukâcs'sphraseology, during which Walt and Yehudi watch, horrified, as their
twofriends Aesop,a crippledNegro,and MotherSioux,a NativeAmerican, are
lynchedby the Ku Klux Klan. Immediately after this event Master Yehudi is
struckdownbyshameat havingdonenothing to helpthem,eventhoughhad he
done so, as a Jew,he would have been killedalongsidethem(99-100).Later,
Walt,too,becomesappalledat thefactthattheyhave continued"rakingin the
dough,strutting beforetheworldlikea pairofhotshots"(132) as ifwhatbefell
theirfriendshad neverhappened."Absolutesinfulness," as in theexperience of
surviving Auschwitz described by Primo Levi, is a condition in which all
innocence - includingthe innocenceof literaryrepresentation - is abolished;
even the businessof continuingto live and workis no longerfreeof moral
blemishes.
It is onlyafterthiseventthatWalt'sactreallybecomesa national"sensation."
In a worldofabsolutesinfulness, innocenceattainsa spectacularcurrency. There
is an argumentforreadingWalthereas a Christfigure.The situationin which
JesusChristmade sucha sensationwas also one of"absolutesinfulness": thisis
themeaningofthepassage in Matthew'sgospelwhereJesustellshis followers:
"Fromthedays ofJohntheBaptistuntilnow thekingdomof heavensuffereth
violence,and theviolenttakeitby force."5 TheobjectiveofWalt'sperformances,
Master Yehudi tellshim, is to bring"spiritualupliftto thousandsof suffering
- thirty-three - corresponds
souls" (129). The number of stagesinWalt'straining
to theage ofJesus when he died; and the number recurs in Timbuktu in thetitle
ofa poemwritten by Willy, soon after he changes his last name from Gurevitch
to Christmas.6 The first line of Thirty-three Rules toLive By is: "Throw yourself
intothearmsoftheworld/ And theairwillholdyou ..." (24);thisis exactlythe
lessonofMr. Vertigo. ThenovelendswithWalt'sadviceto anyonewishingtotry
lévitation: "You must learnto stopbeingyourself. That'swhereit begins,and
everything else follows from that. You must let yourselfevaporate.Let your
musclesgo limp, breathe until you feelyour soul pouringoutofyou ..." (293).
The vicarious"spiritualuplift"promisedby Walt's performances, ofcourse,is
an illusion;the"spectacular" form ofreligion-represented by both JesusChrist
and "Walt theWonderBoy" - is the form that belief takes when,in Lukâcs's
wonderfulphrase,theworldis "released from its paradoxicalanchoragein a
beyond thatis trulypresent"; whenreligion becomes religionas such,ratherthan,
as in theepic,thespiritualactuality ofthe material world (Lukâcs103).Auster's
book is still,afterall, a novel;indeedwe might see Walt's punishingheadaches

madeuse ofthelatestdevelopments ofscience.Mechanical werefettered


engineers tofactories
and draftingboards,whilepilotshad thefreedom ofwindin theexpanseofsky....Therewere
timesin an airplanewhenitseemedI had partially to lookdownon earth
escapedmortality,
likea God" (63-64).
5 Matthew11:12 herehas a meaningthatis quitedifferent
(KingJamesversion)."Sensational"
fromthatof"sensation"; see Deleuze,Francis
Bacon34-35.
6 is also thenumberofhoursit tookCharlesLindbergh to makehis
Thirty-three,incidentally,
transatlantic
flightin 1927(Lindbergh, "We"276).

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12 NOVEL I FALL 2004

as theconsequenceofhishubristic attempt to carrytheepicimmediacyofchild-


hoodperception intotheabsolutesinfulness ofnovelistic adulthood.
If thelinkwithLukâcs'sphrase"absolutesinfulness" seems forcedhere,we
mightcompare thatfamous opening of The Theory of Novelwithtwo other
the
passages from Auster's novels. Here, Lukâcs's distinction betweena worldof
immanence (the world of the epic) and a world of transcendental homelessness,
or absolutesinfulness (theworldofthenovel),appearsas an organizingprinci-
ple ofAuster'sworktoo.Atthebeginning ofMr. Vertigo, beforethecatastrophic
momentwhichheraldsthedescentofnightupon theworldand thestartofthe
chainofeventswhichwill lead to theproduction ofthetext - thenovel- we are
reading, Walt describes his sensations on firstarriving in Kansas with Master
Yehudi,in a sentencewhichrecallsthevividopeningto TheTheory ofthe "I
Novel:
had no idea what'to expect"he writes."Everything was new to me: everysmell
was strange,everystarin theskyseemedunfamiliar" (11). "Seemed"is impor-
tanthere;everysmelland everystarhas thesensation ofnewnessand unfamiliar-
ityto Waltdespiteitsessential familiarity. "New and yetfamiliar"wroteLukâcs,
describing the world of theepic; it is the passingofthisworldthattheeventsof
Mr. Vertigo willnarrate. Thereis a similarmomenttowardstheend ofTimbuktu.
LongafterWilly,his owner,has died,afterMr.Boneshas gonethroughseveral
otherownersand has finally becomehomelesshimself, he has a feverishdream
of lyingon a beach in CaliforniawithWilly:"He was back in the days when
everything was newand unfamiliar to him,when everything thathappenedwas
happening the
for first time.... He could smell the strangeness thebeautyofit,
and
as ifa partofhimalreadyknewthathe was beyondtheboundariesofhardfact"
(174,emphasesadded).In thedream,Mr.BonesconverseswithWilly,something
he was neverable to do when awake. The passage is a visionof the afterlife,
whichWillyand Mr.Bonesreferto as "Timbuktu," and we mighteasilywriteit
offas a momentof fancifulmysticism. Yet the critiqueof the novel on these
groundscan onlyemergefroma positionof"novelistic"defeatism(in Lukâcs's
sense,or indeedJameson's) whichhas becomeresignedto "absolutesinfulness,"
or "transcendental homelessness," or "culturallogic,"as theconditionofitsown
deludedattachment torealism.
The sensoryinnocenceofMr.Bones'sperception can neverachieveadequate
artisticrenditionin a novel- unless,thatis, thenovelitselfis abolishedin the
process(as it is, symbolically, in theinevitablefailureofWilly's"Symphonyof
Smells"). This inverse correlation betweeninnocenceand thenovelformis also
articulated inAuster'sMr. Vertigo. The periodduringwhichWaltis able to levi-
tateends in a moralcollapse,afterwhichhe is onlyable to survive,he says,by
formingthe idea of writinga book. At the end of the novel Walt winds up
marriedto a womanwho happensto havea nephewnamedQuinn,and itis this
familiar figurein Auster'swork- thealienatednovelist - who,we are told,will
editWalt'snotebooks intothebookwe arecurrently reading.
Whatlooks at first, then,like a concernwiththeimpossibility of thenovel
forminAusteremerges,in fact,outofan acutesenseofwhatthenovelformitself
makes impossible:a harmony betweeninterior and exterior, betweensensationand
intellection. In a certainsense,thiswriter - whom PeterBrookercontrastsas

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TIMOTHY BEWES I THE EVENT OF POSTMODERN FICTION 13

"purepostmodernist" to the"socialrealist"RichardPrice(148)- is a thorough


metaphysician. What animates hisworkis possibility - thepossibility ofa world
ofimmanent meaning where God is indistinguishable from the forms in which
he is manifest.That world is one in which the "novel," at least as Lukâcs
conceivesit- a formwhichexpressesthefundamental dissonanceofan alienated
world- mustnecessarily be absent,and mustappearinitsabsence.
The fascination ofAusteris in hisarticulation oftheantithesis in whichsome-
thing called "thenovel" stands in relation to a world of sensuous immediacy. At
thepointat whichliterature becomesan "event"it attainsrealsensuousimmedi-
acy, of preciselythe kind thatforLukâcs definespremodern literature.The
sensuous(felt)experienceoftheimpossibility ofthenovelas impossible,there-
fore,is a meansby whichpossibility and impossibility arebroughtintoalliance.
The novel heals its attenuatedrelationto theethical,breakingthetragiccycle
wherebythemoreeloquentitsappealsto ethicalsignificance, themorecategori-
cal theseal deliveredupon itsethicalirrelevance. Thereis nothingintrinsically
nostalgicabout thisproposition, particularly ifwe discardLukacs's own epis-
temicdistinction betweennoveland epic.Real examplesofa worldof"sensuous
immediacy"in TheTheory oftheNovel,afterall, are thinon the ground.For
Lukâcs, even theDivine Comedy is nota pureepic,butcharacterized precisely by
thetensionbetweentheworldof theepic and theindividualismof thenovel.
Auster'sworkstoo,we shouldsay,anticipate thepossibility ofwholenessbycon-
tainingthe novel form as a kind of absence within what are indisputably novels.
One ofLukacs's observations about epicnarrativeis thatit has no strongsense
oftemporality; it is one of the most compelling moments in his argument. The
-
heroesoftheepic,he says he mentions Odysseus and Achilles, but the same is
-
trueofDante'spoet,orMilton'sSatan "do notexperience timewithinthework
itself"(121);rather, "whattheyexperience and thewaytheyexperience ithas the
blissfultime-removed qualityof theworldof gods" (122). The contrast, as al-
ways,is withtheworldofthenovel:
Timecan becomeconstitutive [of theliterarytext]onlywhenthebondwiththe
transcendental homehas beensevered.Justas ecstasyelevatesthemysticintoa
spherewhereall durationand all passingoftimehave ceasedandfromwhichhe
mustfall back into theworld of timeonly because of his creaturely,organic
so any closeand visibleconnection
limitations, withtheessencecreatesa cosmos
which is a priori exemptfrom this necessity.Only in thenovel,whose very
matteris seekingand failingto findtheessence,is timeposited with
together
theform....In theepicthelife-immanence ofmeaningis so strongthatit abolishes
time:lifeenters as
eternity life....In thenovel,meaningis separatedfromlife,and
hencethe essential the we
from temporal; might almost say thattheentireinner
action of the novel is nothingbut a struggleagainst the powerof time.(122,
emphasisadded)

Whatis the"essence,"or "theessential"?It is theexperienceoftimeoutsidethe


reifiedconceptionof time,outsidethelinear,imperialist conceptionof it- the
conceptionwhichis reproducedinJameson's and Harvey'speriodizingaccounts

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14 NOVEL I FALL 2004

ofthepostmodern. The essenceis the"event,"thetextas event.In TheSpaceof


Literature Blanchotwrites:"[The] eventoccurswhen the work becomes the
intimacy betweensomeonewho writesit and someone, who readsit" (23). That
is a
intimacy material, sensuous experience. In theevent,thetemporality ofthe
textand thetemporality ofthereadingcoincide,becomeindiscernible. The event
is a directexperienceoftime,a liberation fromsubjective- whatLukâcscallsin
thepassage above "organic" - temporality,thesuddeninsertion of thereading
subject into a sensuous experience of theworld, and of his or herinseparability
fromit.In thismomenttheethicalsubstanceofthetextexceedsmere"ethical"
commentary, abolishingtheethicalsimultaneously withitsinauguration as the
spiritualactualityof thematerialworld.

DennisCooperand Period

DennisCooper'snovels,moreso eventhanAuster's,explorethetensionbetween
thetwo momentsdescribedin thatpassage fromLukâcs:thefailed,novelistic
searchfortheessence,and theepicsuspensionoftimein thecertainty ofhaving
achievedit already.His novelPeriod(2000)resistsanyattemptto say whatit is
"about."In fact,it so successfully achievesthestatusofan eventthatthenovel
itselfall butdisappears;itis impossible,finally, to distinguishbetween,say,ve-
hicleand tenor,subjectand object,formand content, materialand thematic.
The subjectmatterofPeriod,morethananything, is a novel entitledPeriod
written by a cultnovelist named Walker Crane.Cooper'sPeriodis theculmina-
tionof a five-novel cycledealing with young,mostlygay Californianmen in
searchofthepossibility ofmeaningand beauty.Theseworkstoo,then,looklike
novelsin Lukâcs'sdefinition - or at least,Cooper'scharacters looklikenovelists;
they are embarked a
upon quest for the "essence"which theyare destinednever
to find, particularlysince- and this is the main reason for Cooper's
notoriety - they look for it in unpromisingplaces, such as among the
disembodiedorgansoftherandomboystheypickup, or in thelook on a boy's
facewhenhe sees his own gutsspillingoutofhim.Yettheworkcannotbe sim-
ply equated with the preoccupationsof its characters,whom Cooper has
described,withself-conscious provocation,as merely"configurations of the
prose"(qtd. in Gambone 58).
LikeAuster'sbooks,Cooper'salmostalwaysinvolvean unreador an absent
text.In Periodthetextin questionis notonlyWalkerCrane'snovelPeriod, which
or
may may notbe the text we are reading, but also a notebook a
keptby myste-
rious,beautiful boywho does notspeak.The reasonsforhissilenceemergedur-
ingthecourseofthenarrative: "Reallyevilthingshavehappenedto him,"saysa
character namedLeon,halfwaythroughthebook;butthisis soon afterwe hear
thatLeon,and hencealso theboy withthenotebook,are characters in Walter
Crane'sPeriod(60,54).
Itis difficult
to do justiceto thecomplexity ofthisworkin thespace available.
The five-novel cycleas a wholesupposedlycenterson a character namedGeorge
Miles,a childhoodfriendand former loveroftheauthorwho committed suicide
in 1987.Perioditselfhas a mirror-like structurewhichis reminiscent of Orson

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TIMOTHY BEWES I THE EVENT OF POSTMODERN FICTION 15

Welles's films The Lady fromShanghaior F for Fake, or- a more recent
example- ChristopherNolan's Memento,althoughthe structure of Cooper's
novelis considerably morecomplexthanthese.
WalkerCrane'sPeriodis aboutan artistsomewhatlikeWalkerCranehimself,
who spendshislifetrying to recreate"George"- a former loverwho committed
suicide- in hisart.ThusthetextwithinCooper'stext - WalkerCrane'sPeriod - is
or
also, maybe, the text outside the text. This material destabilization of the
boundary between inside and outside is crucial to theeffect ofthe novel.Dennis
Cooper's Periodis notonlyaboutdesireas thecompulsionto repeat,but also
about creativity - literarycreativity
itself - as fuelledby suchdesire. George
Miles, the "original"object desire, man whom Cooper talks about in
of a
interviewsin termsof an absoluteinnocence("the one personI would have
protectedat all costs"[qtd. in Lucas 3]), has plentyof doubles in Cooper's
fiction;accordingto theauthor,everymajoryoungmale figurein his booksis
based him- butin Periodthesedoublesproliferate.
on It is neverentirely clear
who is a real person and who is a fictional character from one or otherof the
textsentitledPeriod.
WalkerCrane'sPeriod - thefictional textinsideCooper'sPeriod - has a website
devotedto it,runby a fannamedBob,whichis also thename of theartistin
Crane'sown novel- a textwithinthetextwithinthetext(50). WhenCooper's
Bob (thewebsitehost)articulates theethicalconundrum at theheartofBob (the
artist)'sprojectin Walker Crane's Period, what he says has as muchresonancefor
DennisCooper'sPeriodas for Walker Crane's Period, indeedforBob's own
and
obsessiveweb-basedactivity as a fan of the novel.7 "Theonlyquestion,"he says,
"is whetherthe artist'ssuccess [in reviving"George"in a workof art]is an
exampleofloveco-opting form... orthecompleteopposite"(50).
Thereis also a rockband called"TheOmen,"in Cooper'sPeriod,who model
themselves afterthe"fictional" band in WalkerCrane'sPeriod - althoughagain,
giventhereversiblestructure, it is impossibleto say in theend whichband is
modeledafterwhich.The twoband members,fansof theWalkerCranebook,
select boys from among their following who look like the "real"
-
George- photographsof whom are on Bob's Period website and whom
successivelytheyrape,killand dismemberin theback of theirtourvan. It is
neverestablishedwhetherthephotoson thewebsiteare reallyof Georgeor in
factofNate,a GeorgelookalikewithwhomthewriterWalkerCraneis sleeping
in an attemptto replacehis own dead George.This factbecomessalientwhen
The Omenpickup Natehimself on thebasisthathe tooresemblesGeorge.Ator
aroundthispointthetextappearsto go intoa kindofreversal,sinceeverything
we've readis progressively unwritten bywhatfollows;indeed,amidtheaccumula-
tionof reconstructions, Cooper's novel effectively disappears.The book itself
presentsnothing, afterall,otherthanthisseriesofreconstructive Atthe
projects.
end itis unclearwhichOmen- WalkerCrane'sorDennisCooper's- havekilled
Nate.Nor is it entirely clearwhethertheboy withthenotebookin theopening

7 In the thefictional artistBob'sreconstruction


of
guestroomofhishome,Bobhas reconstructed
the site of George'sdeath- itselfa reconstruction
of the site of the "real" (meaningthe
GeorgeMiles'ssuicideinWalkerCrane'snovel.
fictional)

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16 NOVEL I FALL2004

pagesis GeorgeMilesor a lookalike,anothereroticsubstitute. Thatis to say,itis


unclearwhether at thestartofthebookwe areat thebeginning oftheeventsnar-
rated,or at theend.The questionbecomes:at whatpointdoes desireitselfoper-
ate as a kindofreversal?Can thereplacement displacetheoriginalas primary
object of desire? Can the replacementdisplacetheoriginalas model of artistic
creation? Can thetext,inotherwords,becometheevent?
Thisabsolutereversibility offormand content, theirindiscernibility,is botha
formaleffect ofDennisCooper'sPeriodand a thematic concern.Formand con-
tentin Cooper,narrative timeand readingtime,coincide,makingtheverystruc-
tureof thebook a sensoryexperience."Absolutesinfulness"is everywhere, of
course, and it denotes the corruptionof contentsimultaneouslywith the
corruption ofform - thecorruption ofcontent,one shouldsay,as thecorruption
ofform.In a pivotalchapter,a character called "Natetan" - a synthesisofNate
and Etan,principalcharactersin WalkerCrane'sPeriodand Dennis Cooper's
Periodrespectively (or maybeit's theotherway round)- says:"You don'twant
to comehere.It's a horribleplace.Everyonehereis eitherevil or theyhave evil
thingsdonetothem.It'sbetternottoknowanything" (67).
It should be apparentthatCooper's workis not well describedby Linda
Hutcheon'sterm"metafiction" (92-93),whichpreservestheimpressionofa re-
centorganicattenuation and exhaustionof thenovelform;and I would argue
thatthatinadequacyis generalizablenot onlyto otherworksof postmodern
fictionbut also to othertermsinvokedin "postmodernist" criticism(irony,
double-coding, which
etc.), limitreadingswithin topographical structures ofrep-
resentation ratherthanopeningthemup to the indeterminacy of the event.8
GillesDeleuze uses a metaphorofcrystallization to talkabouttheway cinema
createsimagesor "crystals"of directtime,whichabolishtheboundaryof the
cinematic textbyexisting bothcompletely insideand completely outsidethetext.
Cinemais an exemplarytextual"event,"sinceon filmtherepresented past is
renderedinseparably fromitsownpresent.Cinemagivesus a pastwrenchedout
ofthepast,theactuality ofthepastconfronted withitsvirtuality.
Thisidea,itseemsto me,has immensecriticalpotentialin thecontextofcon-
temporary fiction,in whichthe influenceof cinemais everywhere.Cooper's
novel, like otherrecentworks(Doctorow'sCityofGod,Rushdie'sTheSatanic
Verses,Sebald's Austerlitz),
presentsus withimages of pureopticaland sensoryper-
"directtime-images"
ception, in Deleuze's formulation,
whichchangeourunder-
standing of the natureof fictionitself.Such works,by creatinga visceral
experienceoftemporalityin themomentofreading,are capableofnothingless
thana restorationofourbeliefin theworld- preciselybygivingsensory
formto
our unbelief,
that is, by giving sensory formto our senseof theimpossibility
of the

8
JamesAnnesleyis thusrightto rejectElizabethYoung'sreadingofCooper'sworkas merely
a kindof"postmodernism"
replicating thatsheseesexemplified, forexample,in the"deathly
brilliance"of JeanBaudrillard.Young,observesAnnesley,"failsto take intoaccountthe
materialnatureofCooper'swriting....
Friskneedstobe interpreted, notas a self-reflexive
text
abouttherepresentationof thebody,but as a novelwhichactuallyconcernsitselfwiththe
relationshipbetweenwritingand materiality" (34). See also Young,"Deathin Disneyland"
259-61.

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TIMOTHY BEWES I THE EVENT OF POSTMODERN FICTION 17

novelformas such.9 Itis thischaracteristic


whichbringsthemclosertotheepic
thantothenovel,at leastinLukâcs'shistorical schemaofliterary forms.
BothCooper'sand Auster'snovelsexplicitly thematizethe failure,even the
necessaryfailure, ofthenovelform:"I'm reallyproudofmywork,"saysCooper
in an interview in 1997,"but,at thesame time,I feellikeI've failedmyself, and
I'm notsurewhy"(qtd.in Canning310).In thesameinterview Cooper describes
hisambitionsforthestilluncompleted Period:"I wantittobe implicitin thelast
book thatthere'sa failureto do whatit intendsto do" (317). ReadingLukâcs,
however,itis apparentthatthenovelis an inherently failingform;thusto failat
thenovelmaybe to succeedon someotherscale ofcriteria. Two impossibilities,
perhaps, cancel each other out,and the "impossible" novel of postmodernism
becomesa formentirely aboutpossibility.Here, in thefragmented indeterminate
textofliterary the
postmodernity, "corrupting" conventions of bourgeoisrepre-
sentationare not, as Hutcheonimagines,subjectedto formalcritique,or
perpetual,ululating"problematization" (94,98-99),butsimplyshruggedoff;the
novelenterstheworldalongsideitsobjectsofrepresentation, sharing- indeed
exceeding- their sensuous actuality.
The idea oftheethicalwhichstandsbehindLukâcs'sdiagnosisofthenovelas
"theformoftheage ofabsolutesinfulness" is one in whichethicscannotappear
as such without becoming revealing, least- itsdiabolicalopposite.Take
- or at
thefollowing, famously fustianmomentin Dickens:"Dead, yourMajesty.Dead,
my lordsand gentlemen. Dead, RightReverendsand WrongReverendsofevery
order.Dead, men and woman,bornwithHeavenlycompassionin yourhearts.
And dyingthus around us, everyday" (734). This passage, trillingover the
expirationofPoorJo in Bleak House,emergesnotoutofthehighestethicalcapaci-
tiesofthenovelform, butfroma conviction thatthenovelformitselfis beyond
redemption. Dickenswrites,produces, the"sinfulness" ofthenovelas such;an
unbridgeable gap is openedup betweenthenoveland ethicalreality, signaledin
theverydesperationoftheattempt tobringthemtogether. Likewise,theethical
substanceofthestatement "All happyfamiliesare alike; each unhappyfamilyis
unhappyin itsown way" (Tolstoy1) shouldbe lookedfor simplyin thesen-
not
timentit expressesso eloquently,but in the greatdistanceit marksbetween
"essential" life and the world of convention.What Lukâcs calls Tolstoy's
"evaluatingand rejecting attitude"testifiesto an incommensurability between
subjectand object,betweennatureand culture,between the timelessness of
social convention and the temporalityof the individual. It is this
incommensurability, this"paradoxy,"whichprovidesthesensuousfabricofthe
-
novel at its best meaning,forLukâcs,at its most"profoundly problematic"
(149).Tolstoyconveysthesocialand psychological "disillusionment" (151) that
displacesthesupposed unityof theepic,albeitin a "polemical,nostalgicand
abstract"form(152);thisis thereasonforhisgreatimportance forLukâcsin the
last pages of TheTheoryoftheNovel.
"Religiousarttoday,"writesAdorno,"is nothingbutblasphemy"(294);and
thesameis trueoftheethicalinsofaras itimaginesitselfas a domainofenquiry
9 Thisformulation wherehe putsforward
is indebtedto chapter7 ofDeleuze'sTheTime-Image,
thenotionthatcinemais capableofrestoringbeliefintheworld.

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18 NOVEL I FALL 2004

whichstandsover,commenting upon,thereal.To experienceethicsas suchis to


experience its absence. The ethicalcomesintobeingonlyat themomentof its
disappearance into sensation. While Paul Auster'sworkimaginesa successionof
non-no velisticspheresinwhicha sensuousunitymightbe possible,theseremain
marginalto his conceptionof the novel,whichexistsas a kind of haunting
absencewithinhis texts.DennisCoopercomescloserto theimaginedunityof
theepicbyrendering sensuoustheimpossibility ofthenovelas such,and byhold-
its
ing disappearance in tortuous suspension.In bothAuster'sand particularly
Cooper's work, the novel approachestheformthatLukâcsimaginedas its fu-
ture:the simpledepictionof a new world"remotefromany struggleagainst
whatactuallyexists"(152).WhatLukâcswas unableto foreseewas thatthisde-
velopmentwould takeplace notin thefurther evolutionof "realism,"but in its
abandonment, along with the presumptions ethical"commentary,"
of in faith-
fulnesstotheeventofthetextitself.
BothJameson'sand Lukacs'sconceptions ofthepossibilitiesofthenovelare
limited by an inadequate understanding of temporality as linear
chronology - theabstraction, thedematerialization,oftime- and by an epigonal
senseof livingin its finalmoments.The bourgeoisrealistnovelthusstandsin
exactlythesame relationto Lukacs'sphilosophyofliterary historyas thecon-
temporary novel stands in relationto Jameson'sunderstanding of postmodern
culturalproduction: as a formwhichhas reacheditsown limits,whichis deter-
minedby necessaryfailure,and whichresolvesthe supposed antinomiesof
modernitysimplyby inhabitingthemas their"culturallogic." For all this,
Lukacs'sdistinction betweenpre-modern literaryformsand thenovelin termsof
the rupturebetweenmaterialand spiritualgives us a conceptualmodel for
understanding the"transcendent" availableto thenovelas well.By
possibilities
givingsensory form to the impossibilityof thenovel as such,postmodern fiction
returnsus to theeventof thetext,enablingus to believein theworld,and its
presentability,again.

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